5 ways to reduce your cancer risks, according to new research

Making healthy changes like quitting smoking and improving your diet and exercise routine could make a big difference for your risks of many cancers, experts say. (Getty Images)
Making healthy changes like quitting smoking and improving your diet and exercise routine could make a big difference for your risks of many cancers, experts say. (Getty Images)

Can cancer be avoided? Not always, but about 4 in 10 casesand approximately 50% of cancer deaths — in the United States can be attributed predominantly to lifestyle factors you can change, including smoking, diet, exercise habits and even simply getting the recommended doses of a vaccine, new research published by the American Cancer Society shows.

What could you be doing to reduce your cancer risk? Here’s what the new research says and the changes three cancer prevention experts recommend making.

The study looked at how rates of 30 types of cancer compared to rates of 18 different modifiable risk factors (meaning ones that could be changed, such as activity level or HPV vaccination status). Smoking cigarettes had the largest impact on cancer rates, accounting for nearly 20% of cancers in 2019, meaning that as many as 206,550 cases and 103,000 deaths could have been prevented if all smokers had quit (or, better yet, never started).

Excess body weight, or obesity, came in second, accounting for 7.6% of cancer cases in men and women combined. Drinking alcohol accounts for 5.4% of cancer cases, and UV radiation — primarily from sun exposure — is responsible for 4.6% of diagnoses.

Physical inactivity was the fifth most significant changeable risk factor and could be blamed for over 3% of cancers. While each was individually responsible for a smaller share of cancers, diet-related factors, including high red and processed meat consumption and dietary sugar and low fruit, vegetable, calcium and fiber intake, collectively made up 4.2% of cancer risks. Preventing or treating infections like HPV, hepatitis B and C and H. pylori could block the development of tens of thousands more cancers in a year, the study also suggested.

Here's what experts suggest doing.

You don’t have to reinvent the wheel, or your diet, to eat for cancer prevention, Dr. Andrea Silber, a medical oncologist and associate community engagement and health equity director for clinical research at Yale Cancer Center, tells Yahoo Life.

One rule of thumb, according to Dr. Fang Fang Zhang, chair of the Division of Nutrition Epidemiology and Data Science at Tufts University, is to always look for whole foods and avoid products where there’s no visible trace of the original ingredient. Ultra-processed foods are “industry-formulated foods … which use very little or no whole foods,” she tells Yahoo Life. “You won’t ever see the food component,” like a chicken drumstick or a slice of actual fruit, “in the product because it undergoes such heavy processing.” She says it’s especially important to look for fiber-rich whole grains, and avoid refined ones, which have been sapped of the gut-healthy nutrients. Zhang adds that these processed foods lead us to eat more and more quickly, contributing to obesity. So, cutting back on foods like potato chips and packaged sweets can reduce your cancer risks in two ways at once.

Not exercising accounts for about 3% of cancer cases, according to the new research. Conversely, incorporating physical activity into your daily routine can reduce cancer risks by as much as 30%, according to one 2023 study, which looked at the impact of getting one to two minutes of “vigorous” exercise.

But you don’t need to join an expensive gym or sign up for the most rigorous HIIT class to make a dent in your cancer risks, Silber advises. “Everyone knows they should exercise, but it’s hard to find the energy, and people are intimidated by [things like] gym equipment,” she says. “But exercise can be optimistic and inclusive of all ages and types of people. She’s a proponent of getting your steps in with rucking, and counting any walks, child-carrying and chores as exercise. That includes gardening. “It may not be as aerobic as some forms of exercising, but it’s very satisfying, it’s creative and it can be community-oriented,” Silber says.

Of all the cancers for which risks can be reduced by modifying behavior, the odds improve the most for cervical cancer, which, the new study estimates, could be 100% preventable. That’s because the vaccine against HPV, or human papillomavirus, prevents more than 90% of cancers caused by the extremely common sexually transmitted infection, which include cervical, anal, vaginal, vulvar and head and neck cancers. The science is clear, the experts say: Anyone who is eligible should get vaccinated.

Similarly, being vaccinated against or treated for additional infections including hepatitis B and C could further reduce risks of multiple cancers. So if you don’t know your vaccination status, it’s worth a chat with your doctor, experts urge.

The good news is that smoking rates have steadily plummeted over the past several decades, and —among young adults in the U.S. — fell from 19% in 2011 to 5% in 2022, according to a 2023 paper. But tens of millions of adults still light up, a habit that does more than any other to raise risks of developing malignant tumors, especially lung cancer.

Dr. Therese Bevers, medical director of the Cancer Prevention Center at MD Anderson, acknowledges that quitting smoking can be “difficult.” But, she adds, medications and behavioral therapy can help.

Her own tips for charting your course toward a smoke-less life? “First off, get in the mindset of quitting by recognizing the importances of why you need to quit and remember you’re doing something positive for your health,” she advises. Then, before you smoke your last cigarette, find the resources that will provide support. Next, set a quit date and “make preparations to continually be in that mindset,” Bevers says. For example, she suggests replacing your morning routine, so that the first thing you do each day is different from what it was when you were a smoker. If you like to get up and have coffee and a cigarette, decide instead to immediately put on workout clothes and go for a brisk walk, followed by a smoothie. “It’s not the same trigger as coffee,” she notes, and you’ll be reducing your cancer risks further by exercising and adding some fruits or veggies to your morning beverage.

Misinformation about sunscreen and attempts to DIY UV protection at home (please don’t try it) have popped up on social media lately to the chagrin of cancer experts. “We’re in an environment of misinformation, like the TikTok anti-sunscreen [trend], where ... young people are told rumors and conspiracy theories,” says Silber. “But it’s important to try to prevent solar exposure.” Daily use of sunscreen can reduce your risks of skin cancer by about 40 to 50%, according to the Skin Care Foundation, and there is no proof there are any risks that outweigh that benefit.